Combating post-truth politics in an era of uncertainty: A call to arms.

Ashley Sofocleous.

[Note: This article was submitted as coursework in Jan 2017].

2016 was something of an annus horriblis for scientists and science policymakers, with Britain turning their backs on Europe, and the United States electing the most controversial candidate in recent times to become their president. Both results were met with uproar from a clear majority of the scientific community, many of whom felt that rhetoric and appeals to emotion had triumphed over facts and evidence. It was no surprise then, when the Oxford English Dictionary chose “post-truth” as their word of the year. This coincided with a recent post-election speech made by the outgoing president Barack Obama, where he expressed his concerns for the current political climate: “If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems”. We require effective strategies to combat the advent of post-truth politics, which seem to be in direct opposition to fundamental scientific tenets.

Scientists have been accused of being passive when it comes to making their voices heard on complex daily matters, content on existing outside of the messy political sphere. The earthquake caused by Donald Trump’s arrival may just be the thing to wake scientists and advocates up from their slumber, and encourage them to participate more vociferously in mainstream politics. In fact, steps have already been taken to ensure that their voices are being heard. 11,000 women scientists signed a pledge shortly after the election results showing their commitment towards building “a more inclusive society and scientific enterprise”. This resolve is echoed in a similar demonstration held in the streets of San Franscisco in December, with scientists of the American Geophysical Union encouraging others to “stand up for science”. It will be important to continue to put pressure on politicians, to actively criticise and advise in these uncertain times.

Perhaps the greatest cause for concern for proponents of truth and evidence is Trump’s dismissive attitude towards climate change and the environment. Ignoring his China “conspiracy” twitter rants, only last month he claimed “nobody really knows” if climate change is real. This flies in the face of all evidence and with a vast scientific consensus that climate change is being driven by human activity. What is most worrisome is that it seems to be guiding his environmental policy, with the administration suggesting heavily that the United States will withdraw from the landmark Paris Agreement struck last year. It is not just America’s concern, despite the election campaign marching along to nationalistic undertones. The United States is the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, and their backing of the agreement holds incredible weight.

More than 800 Earth scientists and energy experts signed an open letter encouraging a more urgent look at climate change policy, but it is not just scientists that are combatting the incoming administration’s stance. In a joint statement published days before the inauguration, more than 630 major companies and investors have voiced their concerns, stating that “failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk”. In truth, this is likely to be more persuasive to the administration than the demonstrations made by the climate scientists. This is not a particularly palatable thought, but is indicative of the realities of today’s political battlefield. Economy trumps science. Nevertheless, there is strength in numbers, and if enough global companies raise their concerns, the legitimate arguments made by specialists will be heard.

The internet and digitisation is a crowning achievement for science and technology professionals, and a hallmark of what can be achieved through hard work, dedication and ingenuity. However, as the old saying goes, we often give our enemies the means of our own destruction, and digital culture has given a platform to shoddy news outlets willing to produce fake news in exchange for clicks. Facebook is one such platform that has recently come under fire for allowing so called “clickbait” articles, designed to shock and outrage, to feature prominently on its newsfeed. Consequently, it has called into question the role of the social media website in the presidential election, something its founder strongly refutes. Nevertheless, when the aim of content is ultimately monetisation of shares, likes and clicks, it is not surprising that quantity is prioritised over quality. Furthermore, when we do interact with content, we are offered up similar (and far too often, false) articles, reinforcing the problem.

The responsibility is shared here, and both Facebook and users must take steps to move towards a more truthful social network. In the first instance, the online giant must do better to filter out erroneous and obviously misleading information. Social media is such an ingrained part of our daily lives that the companies which profit so heavily from our engagement have a responsibility to provide both impartiality and truthful news, whilst not stifling public discourse. Last month, Facebook announced that they would outsource fact-checking to independent groups, in response to the less than stellar performance by the previously used internal algorithms. The changes should have a positive influence, though its implementation and success rates should be closely monitored. Whilst the spotlight is on the social media companies, we ultimately have the final say as to whether we choose to share an article or not and far too often it is the former, particularly when it comes to sensationalist news that shocks or reaffirms our deeply held beliefs. Fact-checking is a responsibility we all share, to help moderate media in all its forms – in a bid to rid ourselves of our biases and become more objective in our judgements.

Scientists and other academics must strive to bridge the discord between themselves and non-academics, to best combat feelings of apathy and otherness. The problems they face are not unique to the United States leadership, and featured heavily in the run up to Britain’s referendum on European Union membership. Michael Gove, the then Justice Secretary, typified a post-truth political campaign with a damning indictment on intellectualism and rationality: “people in this country have had enough of experts”. There is nothing wrong with being critical of sweeping statements made by experts. In fact, it is a good thing. We should challenge experts to ensure their work is well-supported and root out fraudulence. But ultimately to dismiss experts entirely (and their years of tireless research) is indicative of a dangerous wave of anti-intellectualism that risks undermining objective truth, and cannot go unchecked.

In a 2015 Ipsos MORI poll, 79% of the public were shown to be trusting of scientists (compared to only 21% for politicians), so it was a shock to the system when Britain decided to leave the EU, despite so many scientists publicly backing the Remain campaign. What is the cause of the divide? If it is not necessarily what they say that does not resonate with voters, then perhaps it is the way in which they are being conveyed that needs closer scrutiny. It has been shown that the beliefs that are held most firmly, are difficult to break down, even if we are presented with entirely conflicting evidence. To try and challenge these views with a multitude of facts and figures can often just strengthen our stance. Not only do people tend not to make decisions based on their emotions and deeply held beliefs, rather than the facts that are being presented, but selectively choose facts that support their viewpoint, and neglect those that do not. It is an interesting trait most humans seem to share, but there are ways in which it can be best mitigated.

It is only recently that the science of evidence communication has been looked at in any real detail, with the aim of finding methods of promoting more meaningful discussion and to understand how individuals presented with similar evidence can hold such polarising views. A recent New Scientist editorial entitled “Why we’re funny about facts and prefer emotions” suggests that scientists and experts should use more emotion in their communication of new ideas, to “speak the emotional language of the victors” if they are truly going to re-establish themselves as a political force for rationality and truth. This is not a pleasant compromise for some, and a lesser-of-two-evils mentality is unappealing. But it doesn’t have to be. Experts can be truthful and emotionally upbeat without succumbing to ignorance and devious manipulation tactics that have plagued the political campaigns of the last year (and years before).

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, of the British Antarctic Survey believes that those who have roles in evidence “gathering” and “dissemination” must “strive to understand the process of human decision-making better.” She makes a valuable point. It is not good enough to simply lament to dawning of post-truth politics, but instead, efforts must be made to convince the people within a democracy, which as Dr Shuckburgh outlines, requires “broad and deep engagement by us with all sections of the wider society”. The experts will need to win hearts as well as minds, and so there is much to be done in the coming years. Trump and Brexit may prove to be a blessing in disguise for advocates of facts and evidence over rhetoric. Historically, political shifts come in peaks and troughs and whilst the system seems to have made an almighty swing to one side, the response by wider society has been to push back. Intense criticism from scientists will make politics more accountable than ever, and cast a new light on the values held from all areas of society.

This is far easier said than done, and the science of scientific and evidence-based communication needs further research. However, what is apparent is that the same platforms that have been used by some politicians to incite fear of the unknown and ignore facts can be used to improve communication between specialists and non-specialists. Research from experts can often be abused or sensationalised by those looking to drive their own agendas through the more established forms of media, which is what is so damaging to the outlook on expertise (and allowed Gove to prey on the public’s concern). As such, academics and researchers should seek to communicate directly with society, and address the controversial issues of the day.

It is important to remember that communication is a two-way street, and traditional science communication is frequently not engaging, sometimes self-affirming and occasionally arrogant. There have been efforts in recent years to change this, and the most successful examples utilise the most pervasive platforms of the Information Age. YouTube has become a staple of the modern internet user, and scientific channels have thrived in recent years. Channels like Veritasium and SciShow have nearly 4 million subscribers each* and their videos reach millions of people each day. Comments give an element of feedback to the creators. Better still, the emergence of Reddit’s AMA (Ask Me Anything) posts have provided scientists a means to directly exchange ideas and answer questions from the online community. The moderation of these posts tends to keep the discourse positive and productive, and enlighten readers to topics not covered in much detailed elsewhere in the public arena. But this is not enough. The people that these forms of communication appeal to are often already convinced of the content before they even engage with the expertise. The real challenge will be engagement with those that are anti-science, anti-expertise, or anti-intellectual.

I’ll make no secret of it – the prospect of a Trump administration that rejects objective truth is frightening. But light is being found in the darkness, and the “Trump Effect” has shocked people into action. On both sides of the pond, scientists are banding together in a meaningful effort to have their voices heard. Scientific and digital institutions are more aware of their responsibilities than ever, and initial steps to combat post-truth culture gives reason to be a little more optimistic than the current situation suggests. More action is needed, and there is always the fear that the pushback will be short-term. Improving communication between specialists and non-specialists in a more transparent society will require lots of work, but there is strength in numbers, so perhaps 2017 will lead us towards a much-needed era of “post-post-truth”.

*As of 15/01/17

Combating post-truth politics in an era of uncertainty: A call to arms.

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